When Tino Franco was in sixth grade, his younger brother Mateo, who was 7 at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia.
Though Franco said he doesn’t remember much about the ordeal, he does remember Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a free camp for kids with cancer and their families to get away from the stress of treatment and just be kids.
“I remember when they first reached out, I thought it sounded really lame,” Franco said, adding that his parents and Mateo went without him the first year. “At that age, I just wanted to ignore it more than anything.”
Once his parents finally convinced him to attend, he realized many of the campers shared his feelings about cancer.
“That’s when I kind of got hooked because I was like, ‘Wow, I’m surrounded by people who don’t want to talk about it,’ … they’re sick of talking about it (like I was).”
Over a decade later, Mateo is cancer-free, yet Franco has continued to attend the camp, now as a counselor, and it has remained an important part of his life.
So much so that in October, he was named the 2019 Hero of the Year in the Hero for Healing, a six-week fundraising competition benefitting the camp.
“When your kid has cancer, the whole family is affected, and sending the boys to camp was just normal, but we never expected this,” his mother Sandi Franco said. “It is truly amazing, and we couldn’t be more proud.”
The camp, which runs weekend-long winter sessions and week-long summer sessions, became a staple in Franco’s life, and over the years, he only missed a couple when he had conflicts, such as basketball camp.
As Franco got older, life began to get in the way of attending camp. He began to realize its importance when he first became a counselor at 21 and had to take a week off his internship to attend camp.
“That’s where it became really clear that like this is something like non-negotiable that I have to do,” he said. “The community had done a lot for me in making me feel better about the subliminal terror behind all the stuff that was going on (as a kid), and I just felt like it was a way I could give it back since they had paid it forward.”
The camp has taught him how to listen and be patient — two qualities he always tries to work on.
When asked if he wanted to participate in the Heros for Healing campaign, where he’d have only six weeks to fundraise, he was hesitant as his construction management job had him in the office long hours.
After speaking to his supervisors, who were both on board with helping him reach his goal of $10,000, he accepted the nomination and got to work.
“It was a really brutal first half of that six weeks,” he said, adding that he spent the majority of his free time sending letters to companies for donations.
He didn’t get many responses to his letters in the first few weeks and was surprised when social media posts had raised nearly $2,000, which was much more than he expected from that side of things.
After two generous donations from friends and their families, things began to pick up. “Right there, it turned around, and it went from $2,000 to like $7,000 in three days … and then it really started to snowball to where I was sitting at $12,000.”
Franco, who had long, Herculean locks, as his father called them, told his team that if they reached $20K, he’d let them shave his head and would donate his hair to make wigs for kids with cancer, which was why he had grown it out in the first place.
“When I said that, we were at $12 with a week away, so (I thought) there’s no way we’re making that,” he said. “It was like karma because the next day, a company that donated $500 came back with another $5,000, so it jumped me to $18K really fast.”
A couple of nights before the gala, which marked the end of the campaign, Franco was sitting at $19,950, not including his or his family’s donations.
Though he received a few more donations to his campaign at the gala via the live and silent auctions, Franco still didn’t think he would win. “Then they announce the winner, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I didn’t really prepare a speech. I guess I’m just going to have to wing it.”
Franco had raised more than $28,000 with the entire Hero for Healing campaign itself, raising more than $300,000 in total.
“A lot of people really exceeded my expectations, so it was a good feeling at the end,” he said, adding that though he wasn’t able to donate as much as some, he was able to put in the time and energy. “I did my little part I guess. All in all, the support from everyone and people’s donations really exceeded my expectations, which was fantastic.”
His family joined him at the gala, remarking that it was special to see Franco light up when they called his name as the winner.
“It’s truly heartwarming, it really is,” Sandi Franco said, adding that she was in tears. “He really embraces this and the camp is really special to him. It was really amazing to see something so tragic for the family turn into one of the best things for Tino.”